ST. PETERSBURG — Shane McClanahan understood the hype heading into his start Wednesday afternoon at Angel Stadium. He was lined up against two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, the co-headliner of a first-place Angels team with the most productive lineup in baseball.
He wasn’t too interested in leaning into the hype, though.
“I’ve still got a job to do,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Still got to go out there and try to put my team in position to win, and ultimately, that’s my only goal.”
After yet another dominant performance, the best start of his young career, McClanahan still didn’t want to talk much about himself. He praised the Rays’ defense. His most enthusiastic answers were about Kevin Kiermaier, who homered off Ohtani, and Vidal Bruján, who delivered the go-ahead hit in the 10th inning of the Rays’ 4-2 victory.
“My only goal, like I say every time, is to keep us in the ballgame,” he said afterward. “We won that game as a team, and that’s how we’re going to keep winning games all season long.”
But if McClanahan won’t say it, plenty of others will: He’s in the early part of a special season that could vault him into a select class of starting pitchers with elite stuff and top-of-the-rotation-type results.
“That’s pretty special stuff,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Big fastball, but not only that. He really commands his offspeed pitches extremely well. He’s good. With good health, that kid’s going to be very good for a long period of time.”
The 25-year-old lefty struck out 11 on Wednesday for the second time in his past three starts. He completed seven innings for the second time in his past four outings. He walked one and allowed three hits in his first scoreless start since Opening Day. The Angels whiffed on 24 of his 100 pitches (10 fastballs, six changeups, four curveballs, four sliders) and took 16 for called strikes, and their average exit velocity off McClanahan was a meager 83.2 mph.
“He was outstanding,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Electric.”
“I mean, wow,” Kiermaier added. “Lights out. Just doing it.”
When he walked off the mound, McClanahan led the Majors with 58 strikeouts. His WHIP (0.92), opponents’ average (.184) and innings pitched (39 1/3) ranked ninth among qualified MLB pitchers. His 2.52 ERA ranked ninth in the American League. Beyond the numbers, the most impressive part might be the progression that has taken McClanahan to this point.
He has transformed from a fastball-slurve pitcher with questionable command when he debuted in the 2020 postseason into a predominantly fastball-slider starter as a rookie and now into a potential ace with a legitimate four-pitch mix — an arsenal he uses almost equally to make himself unpredictable for hitters. Of note: He used each of his four pitches to finish at least one strikeout on Wednesday, and while his fastball is averaging 97 mph, he’s racking up elite whiff rates with his changeup (52.8%), slider (48.1%) and curveball (40.3%).
Special. Outstanding. Electric. Lights out. Whatever superlatives you want to use, McClanahan has earned them so far.
“I think most hitters that face him will tell you it’s not a very comfortable at-bat, and from our vantage point, he’s only getting better,” Cash said. “We’re very, very happy with where he’s at. I’ve got to think after one month, he’s put himself in a pretty elite category as a starting pitcher.”